Curling: Scottish curlers can give Britain medal facelift

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The Independent Online
Winning Olympic medals is something that Britain has not been good at lately. Now four patriotic Scotsmen are threatening to end an infamous run - at the Winter Olympics to boot. Mike Rowbottom on

an ambitious quartet.

Britain, as the British Olympic Association has been careful to point out in recent weeks, is not a winter sports country.

With the XVIII Winter Olympics getting underway in Nagano on Saturday, the official line on British medal possibilities has been deliberately downbeat. Outraged domestic reaction at a lack of success in the summer Games of 1996 is still fresh in many administrative minds.

Against that background, the jaunty confidence of the British curling team - four Scotsmen led by Flight Lieutenant Dougie Dryburgh - stands in startling contrast.

In December, they regarded the bronze medal they won at the European Championships, where they defeated the previous world champions, Sweden, in the third-place play-off, as a disappointment.

The narrowest of defeats in the semi-final by Germany, who went on to win the gold, rankled with the Scottish team, which managed a measure of revenge by beating the Germans at Perth last month. They are not gung ho - but nor are they travelling all the way to Japan with the hope of anything less than an Olympic title.

"We are after the gold medal in Nagano or it is failure for us," said Dryburgh's colleague, Peter Wilson, a pharmaceutical salesman whose brother, Philip, a farmer from Stranraer, is also in the team. Ronnie Napier, a construction engineer, makes up the four.

Dryburgh himself assesses the situation as follows: Canada favourites, and Scotland among five second favourites, the others being Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and Norway.

Curling was featured at the first winter Olympics of 1924 in Chamonix, although its official status then is in doubt. It has been a demonstration sport at the Games in 1932, '36, '64, '88 and '92. Why it has taken so long to arrive officially is a mystery to Dryburgh.

"I can't understand it," he said. "It's not like some of the newer Olympic sports which have a subjective judging element in them, like freestyle skiing or synchronised swimming."

As a Scotsman, he could be forgiven for a trace of bias. After all, the game is believed to have had its origins in his country - although there is no certainty about it, a Scottish curling stone inscribed with the date 1511 stands as powerful circumstantial evidence.

And many of the stones which will be used in Nagano - 40lb a time, including the handles - will have been hewn from Scottish granite. Ailsa Craig has an important part to play in the Winter Olympics.

Although the game and the stones may be Scottish, the four Scotsmen selected have to remember that, for the duration of Olympics at least, they are British. They are coming round to it.

"We are all very patriotic Scotsmen, and we find it strange to be representing Great Britain for the first time in our lives," Dryburgh said, "I probably find the position easiest to come to terms with because as a member of the Royal Air Force, my boss is the Queen."

Dryburgh, who was 32 on Friday, comes from a sporting family. His 22- year-old youngest brother, James, is Scotland's first professional curler who has twice been world junior champion and is a reserve for the Olympic team. Another brother, Stewart, is also a top flight curler, and sister Carolyn, has been five-times Inter-Services skating champion.

The sporting genes have been passed down by mother Jacquie, who was runner- up in the pairs at the World Professional Skating Championships, and father Jack, who was Britain's leading ice hockey scorer for four years during the 1960's, revelling in the soubriquet of "The Pimpernel".

Dryburgh, who is due to be promoted to Squadron Leader on his return from Nagano, is a training officer who directs the work of flight engineers. "I am not an active flyer because of bad eyesight," he said. He is, however, clearly perfectly adapted for the acute observation he requires as skip for his team, a role which requires him to call all the shots, as well as delivering the final, crucial shot himself.

The sport which has similarities to bowls, in that points are scored by the number of stones you can leave closer to a central point than your opponents'. Rather than a jack, curling has the "house", a circle of six feet radius.

The term "curling" comes from the varieties of spin which players impart to the stone via the handle. While Dryburgh stands near the "house", directing each delivery, the two other members of the team take up their synthetic brooms and - as required - sweep the ice in front of the travelling stone to speed its progress.

"In golf they say, `never up, never in'," Dryburgh points out. "But it's the reverse in curling. If you deliver the stone too heavy, there's nothing you can do about it. The idea is to deliver it just a bit light, so you can speed it up by brushing in front of it."

But the golfing analogy holds true in one respect - Dryburgh has to read the ice like a green by noting the behaviour of the stone in transit.

"Sometimes the ice is warped and you can't see it. But the stones are so well balanced, they react to the smallest variations," he said.

He then uses his mental map of the landscape, backwards and forwards, to direct the tactics and employ the sweepers at the right times.